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Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del., on Sept. 2, 2020. (AP) Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del., on Sept. 2, 2020. (AP)

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del., on Sept. 2, 2020. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson September 4, 2020

Joe Biden wrong about how early he called to invoke the Defense Production Act

If Your Time is short

• Biden was far from the first official to call for use of the Defense Production Act to boost manufacturing of urgently needed medical supplies. 

• A full 18 days before Biden made his first public comment on the act, Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary had publicly floated the idea, and Trump made it official the same day Biden made his remarks. 

• In between, dozens of Democratic lawmakers publicly called for the act to be used, and Biden did not mention it in a Democratic primary debate.

During an event to discuss school reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden repeated a talking point he’s used previously — that he was ahead of the curve in calling for the Defense Production Act to be used to boost manufacturing of high-demand health products, such as protective equipment.

In a question-and-answer session with reporters following his Sept. 2 event in Wilmington, Del., Biden said, "When it got up to March, I kept saying, look, you’ve got to invoke, and you remember, I think I was the first — I may be mistaken — person calling about the Defense Production Act. … Use that authority. Use it to go out there now and don’t wait to talk about the need for us to have masks."

Biden said he may be mistaken, and he is. But Biden made similar remarks in mid to late March, which our friends at FactCheck.org rated skeptically. Since he has continued to say it, we will put it on the Truth-O-Meter.

Let’s take a fresh look.

What is the Defense Production Act?

The Defense Production Act was signed by President Harry Truman in 1950 and amended periodically since then. Broadly, it allows the federal government to take a stronger role in directing domestic manufacturing capabilities during a national emergency, according to the Congressional Research Service

These powers allow the government to tell private businesses when and how to fulfill orders for essential goods. Over the years, its scope has been expanded from military needs to natural hazards, terrorist attacks, and other national emergencies.

"The DPA is one of those seemingly obscure laws that is actually extraordinarily significant," Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington historian who studies the connections between government and industry, told us in March.

A look at the timeline

The earliest discussion of using the Defense Production Act to combat the coronavirus came on Feb. 26, just three weeks after the first coronavirus death in the United States. Here’s a rundown:

Feb. 26: New York City emergency management commissioner Deanne Criswell, at a press conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaking about masks, said, "There's just a long waiting list and the only way to fulfill that is by the federal government. They have means where they can enact the Defense Production Act and get people to produce these more quickly."

Feb. 28: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at a White House roundtable for the media: "We will use the Defense Production Act as necessary to enable that our contracts go to the front of the line on contracting. That is an authority that we have, and we intend to use it to acquire anything that we need to acquire. We won't use it unnecessarily, of course. We don't want to be disruptive if that's not needed. But if we need to, we will use it. We won't hesitate."

March 1: Azar said in an appearance on Fox News Sunday, "Right now, we are initiating the procurement processes for personal protective equipment, so that would be masks, as well as gowns, gloves, etc. We've got that process initiated. We're gathering information from potential vendors." Asked by host Chris Wallace whether that would be using authority under the act, Azar said, "If we need to."

March 13: A letter from 57 House Democrats urged the president to "use the powers afforded by" the Defense Production Act "to begin the mass production of supplies."

Featured Fact-check

March 15: Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., released a statement about a letter he wrote to the White House urging use of the Defense Production Act. 

March 15: During the evening Democratic debate, Biden did not mention the Defense Production Act (nor did any of the other candidates). Biden pointed to his coronavirus plan on his campaign website, but that version of the plan did not include the Defense Production Act.

March 17: At a White White House coronavirus task force press briefing, Trump himself was asked, "Do you need to invoke the Defense Production Act to get more of those medical supplies to different hospitals across the country?" He answered, "Well, we're able to do that if we have to. Right now we haven't had to, but it's certainly ready."

March 18: In the first statement we could locate by Biden on the issue, he released a statement urging the administration to "prioritize and immediately increase domestic production of any critical medical equipment required to respond to this crisis — such as the production of ventilators and associated training to operate — by invoking the Defense Production Act."

March 18: Trump signed an executive order citing the authority of the act to curb the spread of coronavirus. He specifically mentioned Title I, part of which involves prioritizing contracts that serve national emergency goals over any other contracts or orders. Trump’s executive order specifically named "personal protective equipment and ventilators." 

Later that day, Trump indicated a certain reluctance in a tweet. "I only signed the Defense Production Act to combat the Chinese Virus should we need to invoke it in a worst case scenario in the future. Hopefully there will be no need, but we are all in this TOGETHER!"

Biden’s campaign did not respond to an inquiry seeking earlier comments by the candidate about the Defense Production Act.

It’s worth noting that while several contracts have been awarded under the act’s authority, critics have said that Trump hasn’t used the Defense Production Act to its fullest extent. Several experts made this case to the New York Times in late July.

Trump has not used the act "to create a permanent, sustainable, redundant, domestic supply chain for all things pandemic: testing, swabs, N95 masks, etc.," Jamie Baker, a former legal adviser to the National Security Council and a professor of national security law at Syracuse University, told the Times.

Still, even if Biden agrees that Trump’s follow-through has been weak, it doesn’t mean that he was the first official to call for the Defense Production Act to be used.

Our ruling

Biden has said several times he was the first person calling for use of the Defense Production Act. 

But Biden was far from the first. A full 18 days before Biden made his first public comment on the act, Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary had publicly floated the idea, and Trump made it official the same day Biden made his remarks. In between, dozens of Democratic lawmakers publicly called for the act to be used, and Biden did not mention it in a Democratic primary debate.

We rate the statement False.

Our Sources

Joe Biden, remarks in Wilmington, Del., Sept. 2, 2020

Joe Biden, "Statement from Vice President Joe Biden on Immediate Actions the Trump Administration Must Take to Address the Public Health Crisis," March 18, 2020

White House, "Executive Order on Prioritizing and Allocating Health and Medical Resources to Respond to the Spread of Covid-19," March 18, 2020

White House, "Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Briefing," March 19, 2020

Text of Defense Production Act

Congressional Research Service, "The Defense Production Act of 1950: History, Authorities, and Considerations for Congress," March 2, 2020

Congressional Research Service, "The Defense Production Act (DPA) and COVID-19: Key Authorities and Policy Considerations," March 18, 2020

Donald Trump, tweet, March 18, 2020

CNN, Democratic debate transcript, March 15, 2020

House Democrats, letter to President Trump, March 13, 2020

Edward Markey, statement, March 15, 2020

New York Times, "Government Eyes War Powers to Speed Medical Manufacturing Ahead of Virus," Feb. 28, 2020

New York Times, "When Did the Coronavirus Arrive in the U.S.? Here’s a Review of the Evidence," May 15, 2020

Bill de Blasio, media availability, Feb. 26, 2020 (accessed via Nexis)

White House, pen-and-pad roundtable, Feb. 28, 2020 (accessed via Nexis)

Fox News Sunday, transcript, March 1, 2020 (accessed via Nexis)

FactCheck.org, "Trump, Biden and the Defense Production Act," April 2, 2020

PolitiFact, "Has President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act or not? It’s complicated," March 23, 2020

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Louis Jacobson

Joe Biden wrong about how early he called to invoke the Defense Production Act

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